29 February 2012

What Have I Done to Deserve This?

Last night I was honored to take part in a panel discussion on charity/giving across various faith/practice traditions.  Present were a Hindu priest, a Sikh priest, a rabbi, an imam, a pastor and myself. 

What an amazing group!  Each one was clearly a person of depth and commitment, each one had a story of selfless service to his respective community, and each one demonstrated in word and action that lowering of ego before something much, much bigger that marks, at least to my mind, the beginning of wisdom and compassion.

Who was I to be included among them?

The imam grabbed my hand as we stood for the group mugshot.  The Hindu priest and I stood face-to-face with hands palm-to-palm for a longer-than-perfunctory moment as we said goodbye. 

Once again, I felt like a thief, walking away with much more than I had brought to the event.  And for that, as for so many other things I can't begin to enumerate right now, I am utterly and profoundly, almost wordlessly, grateful.

27 February 2012

I Don't Have Any Answers

For the last while now I've been becoming more and more cognizant of the fact that I really don't have any answers when it comes to most questions.  Get past how many teaspoons of salt in a recipe, go beyond directions to a local business, move off the Jeopardy! facts board, and I'm stumped.  I don't know how things got to be the way they are, so I'm at a loss to figure out how to move on from them.  I couldn't begin to factor in all the variables in any situation, so I'm at a loss to configure possible alternative permutations.

I don't think this is just a personal failing on my part; I don't think anyone else has any answers, either.  I have to confess I've become quite suspicious of anyone who talks like they have a solution to big problems like education, climate, economics, the geopolitical order, and the like.  Maybe it's fatigue from bumping up against campaign rhetoric everywhere I turn, maybe it's just that I'm now playing the back nine of life, but I just don't see any answers anywhere.

The good news is that no one is asking me for any, so I'm pretty much off the hook in any case!

25 February 2012

Suum Cuique? Maybe Not So Much

So the other day we were discussing Mill's Utilitarianism in class, and the usual questions came up about my happiness v. others' happiness, what makes us really happy v. what only seems to, etc.  I pointed out that, for Mill, we do require others' input on the happiness question.  For him, we can use the collective experience of humanity to figure out what is and what is not conducive to happiness.   I went on to suggest that we do this all the time.  If we see a friend getting herself into a problematic relationship, aren't we going to want to pull her aside at some point at have a chat?  If we see a sibling, now an adult, living utterly shiftlessly and without any manner of thought for the future, etc., aren't we going to want to offer a bit of a kick in the rump?  Conversely, how many of us have been grateful that at some point in our life a friend took us aside and talked some sense to us?

The categorical "no" to these questions from one student gave me some pause.  "It's not my business," she said with reference to others' actions; "it's none of their business," she said with reference to her own.  I clarified that no one was talking about forcing anyone to change their behavior or choices, just discussing them.  I clarified that we're talking about friends here. "It doesn't make a difference," she said.

On the one hand, I get it.  We're all adults, and we don't need others weighing in on our affairs.  On the other had, I don't get it at all.  We're all limited, fallible humans, making our way from one day to the next as best we can, and sometimes that personal best might not be all that conducive to our own or others' well-being. 

I wonder if this is rugged American individualism showing through.  I wonder if this is what's left when communities and social fabrics break down.  I wonder if this is a concern for privacy and self taken to its ultimate conclusion.  I do know that it is a philosophical position as old as antiquity (Plato in Republic wrote that "justice is when everyone minds his own business, and refrains from meddling in others' affairs").

To me it all sounds like "I'll watch you play with the knife, and I'll watch you slice your finger, and I'll watch you bleed all over the floor, but I won't do anything to assist until you ask me nicely, and even then I reserve the right to say no."  

I won't argue with Plato.  "To each his own" might well be the language of justice.  In my heart, I do not find it to be the language of compassion.  I saw it welded into the main gate at Buchenwald.  That just about said it all for me.

23 February 2012

This Evening On Planet Earth

We on this planet orbit a sun which is 1 of some 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, a galaxy that is 1 of some 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

According to worldometers.info, there were 253,370 of us born on the planet so far today and some 110,375 of us who died, 21,422 of whom died of hunger.

There are 15,259 days left until the oil is gone, and some 151,856 days until the end of coal on the planet.

This evening on planet earth, I will spend some time on a mat.

While we move at 552km/s with our sun in galactic rotation, I will spend some time on a mat.

In the company of some 7,023,962,172 of us, some 913,474,680 of whom are undernourished and some 517,831,353 of whom are obese, I will spend some time on a mat.

As another hectare of the 765,147 hectares of forest already lost this year falls to the axes, I will spend some time on a mat.

And why?

Because within this fathom-high body, seated on a mat, lies the origin and cessation of the world, its becoming and its passing away, its rise and its fall. 

That's why.  And that's enough.

20 February 2012

Training Tool, or After the Honeymoon

I'm now wondering whether women who take their husband's name when they marry don't feel this, too.  After the initial rush, after the newness has faded a bit, once it's clear that this is it, do they get the "wow, there's no getting around this now" feeling, too?

I went to the pharmacy the other day.  "Prescription for Geiman," I said.  When the pharmacist looked it up, she asked, "For Shodhin?"

My new use-this-or-we-won't-take-$0.20-off grocery store card doesn't prompt the register to print my name on the receipt yet.  "What's your name?" the clerk asked.  "Shodhin," I replied.

I received an email from an undergraduate research conference telling me that a student who had submitted a paper had listed me as the faculty sponsor: "Shodhin Geiman, you have been identified as the Faculty Sponsor for a submission to the __________ Conference listed below."

The name is now all over the medical records, the retail logs, my work as an academic. I would be lying if I said I didn't feel moments of "OMG what have I done?"  I would also be lying if I said I didn't feel moments of "OK, enough with the 'Shodhin' already."  Still, as much as I am now perceiving the utter thoroughness of this change, I'm not complaining at all.

It's teaching me that, even though I thought I was in this hook, line and sinker, there really have been times when I was happy enough to live the old life, or – perhaps better – to not live fully the new one.  It's schooling me further in that surrender of ego I know to be the condition of anything good and noble and true.  It's reminding me that my practice of the Dharma admits of no time off.  It's telling me that, as far as the priesting goes, it's all or nothing. 

And that's what I've wanted all along.  I want my ass kicked.  I want the universe to say, "OK, Bozo, you think this is important?  Game on!"  I want the reminder to catch myself, to step it up, to go past self-imposed limitations and boundaries. 

There's not much room for an alter-ego in a world of ego-attrition, is there?

17 February 2012

We Need Saints

I just submitted a title and abstract for a presentation I've been invited to do in April at an interfaith event.  The inspiration for it came from my Dharma brother who visited at Christmastime.

He and I had been talking about Zen in America, the direction some lines seem to be heading in, how so many Dharma leaders end up hitting the skids, etc.  I offered that we needed more robust practice centers, places designed for life-timers, not just temporary residents.

He offered simply, "We need saints."

Ananda could now lower the flagpole; the Dharma dialogue was over.  My Dharma brother could not have been more right.

The presence of men and women who are embodiments of the Dharma gets me off my complacency and prompts me to step it up like nothing else.  A teaching never moves me nearly as much as contact with a person who is that teaching in action.  I can put down the book, and I can tune out the talk.  But when I find myself face to face with a man or woman who has gone farther, dug deeper, seen more clearly, and understands more completely, I have a very simple choice to make: hide or rise

Such men and women live the point where the statements, "everyone is enlightened" and "no one is enlightened," are both of them together true and each of them separately false.  Without such men and women, it's easy to fall into one or the other perspective, each of which is defeatist in its own way.

Such men and women show how to find the point where the markers, "where I am" and "where I am not quite," become one and the same marker.  Without such men and women, it's easy to think either everything's done or nothing's possible, both of which put an end to all endeavor.

Yep.  We do need them.  Lots of them!

15 February 2012

Nothing to Say

The other day in the midst of far too much already on my plate, the phone rang.  It was a local journalism student working on a project.  Since he'd been interested in our center for a while, he thought he'd get his work and personal interests satisfied at once.  "Could I come by and interview someone and take some shots of the place?" he asked.  "Sure, we could arrange that," I said.  "When might be good?"  He said, "I've got a deadline, and I can be there in 15 minutes."  "Oh," I said, "In that case you'll have to be content with interviewing me, but, sure, come on over."

He set up the camera in the front room, positioned me with mic and lighting, pulled up a chair, told me to pretend the camera wasn't there (right....), and started with the questions.  As we were talking about Zen and practice and ordaining, I found myself thinking as I spoke, "These words I'm saying don't even begin to let you in on it, buddy.  What I know I can't begin to say, and what you hear you probably don't understand."

I thought of the one interview in Amongst White Clouds, where the old master who has been on the mountain for a long time gets asked to say something about Zen.  "Nothing to say," he replies, "Nothing to say."

But there are two kinds of "nothing to say,"aren't there?:
A monk asks the master, "What is Zen?"
"Nothing to say…  Nothing to say…," says the master.

The novice asks the monk, "What is Zen?"
"Nothing to say!  Nothing to say!" says the monk.
The first "nothing to say" comes from realization; the second comes from learning the Zen lingo.  The first is an I-wish-I-could-say-but-really-I-can't kind of thing; the second is a look-how-special-Zen-is kind of thing.

I'm no master, but I know better than to be the mimicking monk, so I answered his questions as best I could, hoping that it might help.

I talked him into coming for the next Intro Night.  Perhaps, one day, he'll come to see just how silly his questions and my answers were.

12 February 2012

The Trouble With Adjectives

At one point in teisho today I had a grammarian moment.  A piece by Stephen Batchelor was being read, and the comments followed along his take-no-prisoners, radically skeptical, anti-dogmatic and anti-authoritarian brand of Buddhist practice (we had heard how talk of "Buddhism" made SB downright ill, so I'm avoiding it here in his honor).  One of the comments was along the lines that there is no Buddhism, if by "Buddhism" is meant a rigid teaching, and a rigid practice and a rigid structure (emphasis in original).

And then it hit me: the whole point rested on the adjective.  Buddhism, of course, does have a teaching and a practice and a structure; to all eyes and ears it's clearly distinguishable from, say, Seventh-Day Adventism.  I suppose that like all teachings and practices and structures, there is a stability to it.  But when I say "stable," and when I say "rigid," one walks away with very different ideas indeed.  We all like things to be stable; no one (and certainly not Boomer religious types) likes things to be rigid.

Take out "rigid" from the commentary, and there was nothing to the point at all.  We'd have to be fourth graders or younger to think that big, old things like Buddhism are unchanging, immutable, fixed and the rest.  Conversely we'd have to be fourth graders or younger to think that big, old things like Buddhism can be altered willy-nilly while remaining remotely what they are.

I did something of this same adjective nonsense (on purpose) in the second sentence from the top.  I could have just as easily said, "...followed along his brand of Buddhist practice," but I didn't.  I put in the adjectives in order to skew this in a particular direction, one slightly dismissive of Stephen Batchelor.  I did it again in making the crack about "Boomer religious types."  Playing with adjectives is fun, and it is the source of massive amounts of dry and sardonic humor.  It is also, though, the source of much of our troubles.

In the social landscape, for instance, adjectives, which used to merely serve to modify nouns, have now become the hot bones of contention.  How "conservative" must a candidate be to win a primary?  How "fast" does your download need to be to warrant switching machines or carriers?  Things and people are not nearly as interesting as qualities and attributes.

I'm going to add a practice to my attempt to walk the way of Right Speech:  minimize undue and unhelpful use of adjectives.  If someone says, "Which folder?" when I ask them to pass the folder, and if there are two, I will of course say, "The blue one."  Beyond that, though, I will work to stick to "the policy," "the candidate," "the idea," etc. without gloss and commentary. 

10 February 2012

"Things Change, Kundun"

When my oldest kids were around five or six they watched and got to like the Scorsese film about the early life of the Dalai Lama, Kundun.   The visuals are stunning, the music is captivating, but looking back I think that what might have hooked them most was that it starts out as a story about a two-year old kid.

As the Dalai Lama grows up on screen, there's a scene with him and his teacher.  The two are playing with toy soldiers, and the boy makes an illicit move and grabs too many of the opposing side's.  The teacher returns in kind, and then the boy starts the aerial bombing.  At this point the teacher takes all the Dalai Lama's men.  When the boy starts a pouting spree, the teacher says, "Today you lose. Tomorrow you may win.  Things change, Kundun." 

That line became a commonplace in our household.  Whenever something would happen that one or the other of the kids didn't like, I'd come back with, "Things change, Kundun."  When events took an unexpectedly positive turn, I'd add, "Things change, Kundun."  Who knows what stuck and what didn't?  I'd like to think they're a bit more resilient than they might have otherwise been.

But my point here isn't about childrearing.  It's about things and change.  Things changeThings change.

There is no safe harbor in things, and there is no point in fleeing them for different things, either.  I think one of the most valuable lessons I've ever received in these years meandering the Buddhist path is the simple fact that fretting, adjusting, calculating, scheming, and all the rest are just so many wastes of time.  Right here.  Right now.  That's it, folks.

08 February 2012

Wide Open, Exposed

I left work last week with everything pretty much as it has always been.  I showed up yesterday and found that the name on my door had been changed.

Seems there had been a meeting on Friday, and my one colleague kept saying "Shodhin" when referring to me (she and I are on another committee together, and she was reporting on our proceedings earlier in the week).  When she got quizzical looks, she explained about the new name, ordination, etc.  After the meeting, the Dean's secretary went and ordered me a new sign.

I hadn't been planning on it, since we're slated to move into a new building in May, and I just figured that the sign in the new building would reflect the new name.  But she went out of her way to make this happen now.  I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.  What an absolutely nice surprise!

I cannot begin to put words on how utterly freeing this name change business feels.  I cannot begin to put words on how weighty this all feels at the same time. 

Now it's one identity, 24/7.   Now the "vessel of the Dharma" language I heard prior to ordination makes so much more sense, because this vessel now sails all seas.  Now the this "blue beacon" (as my first teacher referred to the presence of an ordained around the center and in the zendo) shines in many worlds, in every world I happen to be in.  It's not that it hasn't been shining been these past months; it's just that it shines more obviously – and more inescapably – now than before. 

It's borderline inconceivable that anyone will ever approach me asking to ordain.  If that should ever happen, though, I think I would suggest they seriously consider taking the new name completely in all areas of their life.  I could never have guessed what a boon this would be.  Not in a million years.

07 February 2012

The Middle Way is Not Moderation

Moderation is a form of tempered clinging and tempered aversion.  Tempered clinging and tempered aversion are not the same as non-clinging and non-aversion.

Tempered clinging and tempered aversion are sure-fire ways of keeping up the self-other separation, always negotiating the "not too much, not too little, but just right" line.  Non-clinging and non-aversion are sure-fire ways of ego attrition, as every sÅ«tra and every breath attest.

I don't know how many times I hear Buddhist teachers and scholars equating the Middle Path with moderation.  It's constitutionally protected speech, so no need for the Inquisition and the rack, but it seems to me that much of the elegance of Buddhism disappears when the Middle Way is cast as moderation.

Consider the precepts, for instance.  This past weekend we heard a fine teisho on the precept koans.  One could well level the charge of adhocery to the various perspectives were they not all guided by the Middle Path between clinging and aversion.  Seen like this, sometimes non-clinging and non-aversion means not touching alcohol, but sometimes non-clinging and non-aversion means having a beer.  But, again, it's not about being moderate with beer.  If it were, one couldn't get to the point of no one to drink and no beer to be drunk (or however the Buddhanature precept would run; that's above my pay grade).

Practice is never about the world or stuff or conditioned existence, or whatever one wants to call it.  If it were, moderation would be called for.  Instead, practice is about how this Mind – eternal, joyous, selfless and pure – burgeons forth and acts in the world, conditioned existence, etc.  And that's something quite different, indeed!

06 February 2012


After sitting this morning, one of the members said to us residents as she was leaving, "Thanks for being here!"  I don't think it took me a second to come up with a comeback, "It's nothing to thank us for; we have nowhere else to live!"

A few months ago, another sangha member said to me, "Thanks for picking up the phone when I call."  "Why wouldn't I?" I asked.  He said, "I don't know, but it's just nice knowing that when I call you're going to answer."

It's an old saw that ninety percent of life is just showing up.  I'm beginning to think that ninety-nine percent of my job description (priest-resident-Head of Zendo) is just showing up!

And what a good thing that is.

05 February 2012

Dharma Solitaire

It was only in 19th century Japan that the requirement that home-leavers be unmarried was done away with.  I've heard that part of the reason had to do with the fact that violations of clerical celibacy were by then so rampant and long-standing that it was beside the point to insist on it any longer.  Perhaps.  Given that it's also widespread knowledge that most married Japanese men today carry on extramarital affairs, I'm inclined to view all of this more as an indication of Japanese sexual mores than anything significant about the practice of the Dharma.

In any event, since Zen in America comes from Japan, Zen in America has married priests and "monks."  So it is, and I'm not going to cast aspersions on anyone. 

I am, though, going to plead the case for a way for unmarried Zen priests and monks/nuns to practice with the kind of support that unmarried practice requires.  This means, in the first instance, accepting the real possibility that one can practice this way.

I have a mid-twentysomething Dharma brother who is inclined toward such a practice.  Of course, as with anything in life, the alternatives present themselves time and again, and he gets to wrestle with them.  And it's not just about the sex, it's about the whole kit and kaboodle.  He related to me that he feels unsupported in even thinking about going it alone, about leaving aside relationship and family and all the rest.

It's funny he should feel that in a Buddhist environment.  As he pointed out to me, all the great masters, all those we hear mentioned in the koan collections, even Buddha himself – they all forswore spouse and family and home for the sake of the Dharma.   Surely, he continued, that signifies something important about practice.

Of course it does.  Of course it does.  I just wish that more of those who have taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha would see it enough to be grateful there are still men and women inclined to that kind of practice and to give them a pat on the back for taking a stab at it.

Is it for everyone?  No.  Is it a "better" way to practice?  Let's just say it makes certain things possible that practice in the context of relationship and family does not.  Is it worth cherishing as one component of the noble Sangha?  Heck, I thought that was understood from the very start!

02 February 2012

Groundhog Day / The Eternal Return

Forget Bill Murray.  This F.N. thought up:
The greatest weight.-- What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"
     Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?... Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
I find this to be a satisfying way of measuring the gap between what is and what I happen to cook up as a result of attachment to self.  As long as I am taking exception to things, I am secretly pining for this moment never to return again, for it to be different next time, were there a next time.  On the other hand, as long as things and I are not two, I could will this again and again and yet again.  There is, literally, nothing else to wish for.

There's danger in the word, "craving," here, and I know that.  But what if it was just a simple, straightforward, "Yes, just this," instead, both now and forever ever?